After Series of Debacles, U.S. Looks for Redemption

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Any American track and field fan, or even the casual viewer of NBC’s truncated coverage of the Beijing Olympics, can realize our athletes have offered dismal performances in their individual events. It couldn’t get any worse, right? This column should be about sports, but for a moment, it will digress into an obituary notice for the American track and field team.

Yesterday, the Americans did finally set a record of epic proportions, an American record never achieved since the modern Olympic Games began in 1896. In the opening heats of the men’s and women’s 4×100-meter relays, both American squads dropped the batons on the anchor leg exchanges, thereby eliminating the Stars and Stripes from Friday’s medal competition.

Tyson Gay, the humblest of elite sprinters, whose personal nightmare began in Eugene, Ore., at the American trials with a strained hamstring, failed to negotiate the hand-off from third sprinter Doc Patton. The baton slipped from Gay’s hand onto the track and the 15-time gold medalists in the 4×100 were out.

Just 30 minutes later, the women’s hopes imploded in exactly the same fashion, as Lauryn Williams dropped the baton from Tori Edwards, leaving their medal dreams in tatters. Based on recent race history, perhaps, it wasn’t that big of a shock for the women. It was the third successive Olympic Games in which the American team has suffered a disqualification. Williams was also involved in 2004 in a botched exchange with Marion Jones.

Anchored by Veronica Campbell-Brown, the Jamaican team, which also included the Olympic 100-meter sprint champion Shelly-Ann Fraser, blasted to the fastest time in the world this year with 42.24 seconds. The finals are Friday morning.

Campbell-Brown ran the relays just 90 minutes after she dusted off Allyson Felix to win the gold in the 200 by a comfortable margin in a personal best of 21.74. Campbell’s time was the fastest in a decade, while Felix’s 21.93 earned her a second successive Olympic silver in the event. It’s hard to fault Felix: She lost to the defending champion in a race that saw two women dip below 22 seconds in an Olympic final for only the second time in Olympic history. Jamaican Kerron Stewart, the 100-meter silver medalist, narrowly edged American Muna Lee, by inches, for the bronze. Jamaica, with five golds and nine medals overall, is having its best Olympics. Prior to this week’s striking victories by the Jamaicans, America was the last to win all four sprint titles, at Seoul in 1988.

American redemption did arrive later with a sweep in an event it has dominated for five decades: the men’s 400. In a mild upset, LaShawn Merritt handily beat defending champion Jeremy Wariner, with David Neville capturing bronze for America. Merritt’s time of 43.75 was the fastest of 2008 and also a personal best for the 22-year-old runner from Portsmouth, Va. Hopefully, the medals captured here will lead to better results in the 4×400 relays, which begin Friday.

The men’s 110-hurdles final yesterday was a showcase for Cuban superstar Dayron Robles. The 21-year-old arrived in Beijing as the owner of the two fastest times in 110 history, as well as a pre-Olympic scorcher of a season: seven victories in eight races (as well as seven wins in nine races indoors). Without China’s defending champion, Liu Xiang, to test him, Robles took his revenge on David Oliver, the American who beat him earlier in the year. First out of the blocks with a lead that lasted until he hit the tape, Robles ran a 12.93, slower than his more recent races, but far ahead of Oliver, who snared the bronze. The surprise silver medalist was David Payne, the Cincinnati native who ran his season’s best of 13.17.

It will be interesting to watch what type of track future lies ahead for Robles as a Cuban athlete. Unlike most sports where the athletes defect for financial reasons, the international track circuit is loaded with money, as well as the freedom to travel. The great Alberto “El Caballo” Juantorena (the only winner in history of both the 400 and 800 in one Games, at Montreal in 1976) never had a chance to capitalize on his double gold, as the Cold War prevented him from racing in America. Robles, who ran at Randall Island’s Icahn Stadium in May, won’t have that problem, and it would be a coup if the perpetually underfunded Millrose Games makes him an offer he can’t refuse next winter.

American Bryan Clay, the silver medalist in the decathlon four years ago, leads after the first day of competition. Clay won the opening two events, the 100-meter sprint and the long jump, but faltered at day’s end in the high jump and 400-meter run. But he’s on pace to break the world record of defending champion, Czech Republic star Roman Sebrle, who stands at fifth. American Trey Hardee, in a surprise, holds down the third spot in this grueling two-day event.

The women’s 5,000-meter on Friday morning will most likely be dominated by the Ethiopians, but three Americans did make it to the final, including 10,000-meter bronze medalist, Shalane Flanagan. The women’s 1,500, an event that has faded for American competitors in recent Games, does have Shannon Rowbury. The 23-year-old Duke graduate was the dominant American mid-distance runner in 2008 and qualified for Saturday’s final with the heat’s fourth-fastest overall time. Chaunte Howard did qualify for the women’s high jump finals. Yet, the Americans were shut out of the men’s javelin in the field events. Ditto for the men’s 800, when Nick Symmonds failed to make the finals.

With all the bad luck and underwhelming performances in Beijing, perhaps one athlete whose name has disappeared in the debacle will rise again: Bernard Lagat. He’s an athlete whose poise, grace, and ability define what a champion in track should be. The two-time silver medalist for Kenya, now running in his first Olympics for America, has the stage on Saturday to atone for his 1,500 failure, and will hopefully medal in the difficult 5,000-meter.

The New York Sun

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